My daily bicycle commute takes me ten miles along a peaceful, tree-lined commuter bikeway that runs from my house in Lexington, Massachusetts, nearly all the way to the university where I teach in Cambridge. Since the path isn’t crowded at certain times of day, I take advantage of the solitude to listen to academic audiobooks. In the fall of 2021, I listened with greedy pleasure to the audiobook version of The Dawn of Everything and have been discussing it ever since with colleagues and students.
Many of these conversations have a curious quality. It’s like two people embarking on a game of chess by cautiously advancing each pawn a single square rather than launching boldly into the fray. “What do you think of Graeber and Wengrow?” is a familiar opening refrain. It’s a question that’s nearly impossible to answer—and not just because commuting by bicycle is not wholly compatible with durable intellectual engagement.
Along with Adrian Ivakhiv, what I most appreciate about the book is the granularity of the synthesis. The authors have digested an enormous range of recent findings and interpretations in the field of archaeological anthropology, works that I should be reading myself but never find enough time for. Even better, they have fitted these findings into a provocative new model for approaching humanity’s deep history. With some embarrassment, I find myself guilty as charged when it comes to retailing such truisms as the standard model of small Pleistocene forager bands. I love the authors’ invitation to confront ideas that have colonized my mind without my having had any say in the matter. Since opportunities like this for self-reflection are intensely valuable, it doesn’t matter to me whether every detail turns out to be accurate. What matters is that Graeber and Wengrow have produced a work that pushes me to think and will spark conversation and generate research for decades to come.
But this isn’t the kind of waffling colleagues want to hear when they ask “What do you think of Graeber and Wengrow?” The question suggests that the book contains some Big Idea, that the idea is either right or wrong, and that you’re expected to have an opinion on it. In the prehistory of their collaboration, the authors did indeed set out to write a book that would solve the question of the origins of inequality. Soon enough, however, they discovered that it was the wrong question. As Marco Armeiro suggests, much of the resulting book does not provide answers so much as a set of ruminations about how to ask the right questions. To borrow from Nathalie Peutz, the book is really about “the origins of the question about the origins of social inequality.”
The problem is that if you provide an honest answer to your interlocutors—“I really like the way Graeber and Wengrow have reformulated the questions”—people think it’s just a dodge. I sometimes respond instead by praising one of the book’s most fundamental points: inequality bites hard only when it is accompanied by the loss of freedoms. Reading the essays in this forum showed that I am not alone in being captivated by this idea, and both Ivakhiv and Greg Johnson engage directly with the three freedoms articulated by Graeber and Wengrow. But when you offer this summary of the Big Idea to anyone who thinks the book is a contribution to the study of the origins of inequality, the response you are likely to get is “Huh? What does freedom have to do with inequality?”
Freedom, it turns out, has everything to do with inequality, because inequality is not about money, it’s about having a say in decisions that matter to you. Wealth is meaningful only because, in our current system, it is correlated with political influence. Try explaining this to someone who has made a career measuring Gini coefficients and who believes that we can “solve” poverty or use technocratic solutions to reduce wealth inequality. Dawn dismantles the social science edifice that makes it possible to think that the question “What are the origins of inequality?” has a meaningful answer located in wealth inequality. But to return to the analogy of chess, when you respond to the opening move pawn to e3 by saying, “Before I make my move, we need to have a long talk about the history and philosophy of chess,” people will think you’re nuts. The answer doesn’t work in sound bites.
The bad news is that you can’t really grasp a big, complex book like this in one reading, let alone an audio reading distracted by the occasional rabbit. It was a particular treat, therefore, to have a chance to read these brilliant essays and calibrate my own reading in their light. Among other things, it was encouraging to find that I was not alone in admiring the idea that the peoples of the Pleistocene, in Peutz’s words, were self-conscious political actors. As Myrna Perez Sheldon puts it, “people and communities involved were capable of self-reflection and conscious decision-making.” What a beautiful concept: hey, people back then were people too. It is so easy to assume that people way-back-when lived passively and unreflectively within structures determined for them by their demographic and ecological settings, and to imagine that knowledge articulated in print is the only form of knowledge that counts.
With Johnson and others, I was taken by the book’s premise that the exploration of Indigenous thought is not an exercise in folkloric preservation but one of political recuperation. Alan Mikhail’s intervention thoughtfully highlights a related phenomenon, namely, the distinctive tendency whereby European thought onboards forms of knowledge developed by other peoples while often failing to give credit where credit is due. Johnson also noted the brilliant application of Gregory Bateson’s idea of schismogenesis in chapter 5 of Dawn, which I too found thrilling, as a confirmed fan of Bateson. I was particularly taken by the book’s delicate rehabilitation of the formative work of Marija Gimbutas and, more broadly, the thorough-going manner in which women and gender were built into the interpretive framework. I was struck, therefore, by the fact that only Peutz and Sheldon engaged systematically with the book’s potential contributions to women’s and gender studies. More needs to be said on this.
Alongside the arenas of consensus, there were arenas of difference and dissonance, including reminders of things I had missed or had failed to engage with. Fittingly where the venue is concerned, a number of contributors remarked on the book’s contributions to the study of religion; as Mona Oraby put it, the book’s implications for the study of religion are vast. This is not something to which I had paid sufficient attention. In the essays by Ivakhiv, Peutz, and Sheldon, I was also intrigued by the references to contingency and to the brilliant meditation on contingency offered by Stephen Jay Gould in his formative work Wonderful Life. It is easy to appreciate why historical contingency comes to the mind of some readers of The Dawn of Everything. Graeber and Wengrow, curiously, managed to evoke the concept of contingency without ever using the word itself. Contingency, it seems, is not part of a universal academic language.
Peter Manley Scott’s essay articulates ideas about mythology that were also present in other essays. In particular, he notes that the narrative arc of the work bears some of the attributes of myth, and he takes the repeated references to Eden as evidence that the authors understand that they may be simply replacing one unverifiable myth with another. I, too, had taken note of these gestures to myth, though at the time I found myself wondering whether those gestures were meaningful or cosmetic.
Partly with this in mind, I returned to the book for a light recapitulation of my original reading. This time around, I was struck by the constant evocation of the arsenal of words associated with objectivity. The word “fact” or “facts,” to take a salient example, appears several hundred times. The expression “in fact” is peculiarly prominent in the footnotes, in contexts where the authors are debunking claims or understandings that, as a matter of fact, turn out not to be true. Ditto for “evidence,” which appears in three hundred locations, and related words, such as “true” and “reason.”
How should we approach the envelope of objectivity that saturates the exposition? I don’t know the answer to this. I can appreciate the possibility that Graeber and Wengrow, bowing to the realities of academic discourse, found it expedient to exaggerate the importance of facts and evidence. But that’s not how I read the book. I think objectivity really matters to them. I think it matters to them that the claims they are making are falsifiable.
That being the case, here is a question I might have for Wengrow if we ever have occasion to sit down over a few pints some evening. It concerns a subject that only appears obliquely in these essays. While reading Dawn, I found myself, at times, encountering peoples of the past who seem to be just like us, or rather the activists we might aspire to be. They are uncannily like the ecofeminist-anarchists who populate some of the novels of the sci-fi novelist/political philosopher Kim Stanley Robinson, as explored in a fascinating podcast recently produced by The Dig. The act of recognizing oneself in the past can be extraordinarily self-affirming, as evidenced, for instance, by the reception afforded to John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, a study of gay people in medieval Europe. This prize-winning work was published in 1980, at a time when members of the gay community were coming out of the closet and needing to know that they were not alone in time and space. People back then were people too.
But if there is one thing that both history and anthropology teach us, it is that people can be people in an infinite variety of ways. In all historical writing, the act of recognition stands in a delicate balance with the celebration of difference. If the scales tip toward unalterable difference, the past becomes mythic. But when they tip overly toward recognition, the past becomes a thinly disguised version of the present. Graeber and Wengrow repeatedly distance themselves from a Rousseauan romanticization of the primeval human condition and do so with a degree of insistence that seems noteworthy. I’d like to talk more about the delicate balance of the scales. Graeber and Wengrow dreamed of writing at least three sequels to The Dawn of Everything. There is both sadness and beauty here. The sadness arises because Graeber won’t be able to do his part. The beauty lies in what the dream says about the flowering achievement of Dawn and the multitude of new questions it makes possible.